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Privacy The Courts The Media United States

Court Rules Against Online Anonymity 314

cstacy writes "The Virginia Court of Appeals has ruled (PDF) that people leaving negative feedback for a carpet cleaning service are not allowed to remain anonymous. Yelp must unmask seven critics to the carpet cleaner, who feels that they might not even be real customers."
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Court Rules Against Online Anonymity

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  • by k6mfw ( 1182893 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:31PM (#45907255)
    that was back in 20th century when the US had a Constitution and three branches of govt for checks and balances.
  • by wiredlogic ( 135348 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:34PM (#45907277)

    The whole point of Yelp is to collect negative reviews so they can get paid to remove them.

  • by Rik Sweeney ( 471717 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:36PM (#45907321) Homepage

    Does this mean that people leaving positive feedback should also be unmasked?

    Seriously, I completely avoid any service that has all 4/5 and 5/5 stars because in real life at least one person would find fault with it.

  • by Chirs ( 87576 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:39PM (#45907343)

    If I'm a small business owner, I don't want my competitors to be submitting fake negative reviews against me.

    It might make sense to have both named and anonymous reviews, with the anonymous ones grouped separately. Then the viewer can decide which ones to look at.

  • Escrow of sorts (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gumpish ( 682245 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:42PM (#45907377) Journal

    If the goal of the unmasking is to determine whether the Yelp complainers were actual customers (as the fine article states) couldn't the judge be provided the names of the Yelpers and the list of Mr. Hadeed's customers and make that determination without revealing their identities to Mr. Hadeed or the public at large? (I'm not saying it's morally or legally correct for anyone to know the identity of the Yelpers, but this would seem preferable to telling Mr. Hadeed who the complaining customers were, enabling him to harrass them.)

  • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:45PM (#45907427) Homepage Journal

    Shhh, you're ruining their carefully cleaned memory of a perfect past. Less than a decade after "I have lists!" McCarthy hearings either.

  • by Registered Coward v2 ( 447531 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:45PM (#45907435)
    still determine if the are real or not. Have Hadeed turn over his database to Yelp's lawyers and let them match the reviewers. For those that don't match then Yelp turns over the names. This wouldn't be much different then when a court allows discovery but places safeguards in place to ensure only truly relevant information is revealed. That way, fake reviews are unmasked and Hadeed can decide if he wants to take action against them.
  • by SJHillman ( 1966756 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:46PM (#45907443)

    "No company's terms of service can override the law"

    I see you're new here. Welcome to America!

  • by Entropius ( 188861 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:54PM (#45907513)

    Just because thing A used to be better doesn't mean that thing B used to be better too. Can't we look at the past and say "This was good, but that was bad"?

  • by schneidafunk ( 795759 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:55PM (#45907527)

    I agree. I see a lot of people talking about free speech and quoting the constitution, but ignoring libel & defamation. Being able to speak anonymously as a whistleblower or protester is one thing; ruining the reputation of a person or business with falsehoods is quite another.

  • by i kan reed ( 749298 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @12:57PM (#45907549) Homepage Journal

    Sure, but the point of k6mfw's post was that "the constitution" were secured in the past, and it really wasn't in any meaningful way.

  • by organgtool ( 966989 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:03PM (#45907619)
    The judge seems very worried about protecting businesses from false negative reviews but how about protecting consumers from false positive reviews? Does this mean that shills are required to use their real names as well (at least in Virginia)?
  • Re:Escrow of sorts (Score:2, Insightful)

    by medv4380 ( 1604309 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:11PM (#45907709)
    I seem to recall a right somewhere.. what was it... Something about the right to confront ones own accusers. Must be some communist or European thing.
  • Give him a mask... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Petron ( 1771156 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:15PM (#45907765)

    Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.
            -Oscar Wilde

  • Re:Skynet (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:19PM (#45907817)

    4chan run's itself.


    Filter error: Don't use so many caps. It's like YELLING. - yes, no shit, Slashdot. It was meant to be yelling.

  • by TrollstonButterbeans ( 2914995 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @01:36PM (#45907997)
    Oscar Wilde: "Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth."

    On the internet, if you give him a mask "he will start trolling".
  • by Charliemopps ( 1157495 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @02:13PM (#45908547)

    I would juxtapose that with the advertisements these very same businesses often use with "Fake" customers (actors) that claim how great the service is on television and on the radio. If the business is allowed to make False statements of fact regarding the quality of their services and have it protected by the first amendment, how can the public be denied the same right? I do not see how this is any different that the very same businesses fraudulent claims in advertising.

  • by Unordained ( 262962 ) <> on Thursday January 09, 2014 @02:40PM (#45909009)

    Whether the reviews are true or not may very well depend on the identity of the supposed reviewer. If it's in the form of "they destroyed my carpet", the cleaning service could either try to prove that this has not happened to any customers ever, or that this review did not come from a customer to whom it actually happened. If it's not a real customer, then it's probably a competitor, and at that point, it's very much libel -- purposefully spreading lies for the purpose of damaging someone else's reputation. Reviews like this really do matter to a small business. If they reveal the identities and discover it was a real customer and a real experience, there's nothing legally they could do to remove it, because it wouldn't be libel, and would be protected. But they also can't do anything about it now, until they prove it's false, which requires them to reveal identities.

    The alternate solution might be for all review systems to say "this review is anonymous [better: not a verified identity], so the person being reviewed really has no opportunity to face his accuser, so you should take this with a really big grain of salt". And maybe not even count it in the averaged star-rating. And then you've just killed their business model, because the identity/registration stuff is such a hurdle.

  • by naughtynaughty ( 1154069 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @03:28PM (#45909659)
    There is no evidence that they were not customers, he simply claimed he was not able to identify them as customers. As someone who was once sued in Texas by a scummy publicly traded company for my alleged to be defamatory comments I posted online about their pumped up and soon to collapse revenue, I can assure you that companies can and do lie in their assertions to the court. In my case the intent, plain as simple, was to stifle public discussion of the company so investors could continue to be bamboozled by glowing press releases. The case was tossed out of court because they had no jurisdiction over me in Texas so we didn't get to the point of having to prove it was a SLAAP suit with no substance. And the company's stock soon collapsed as it became obvious that they were in fact exactly what I and others were asserting that they were. While I am sympathetic to a company being defamed online, I think we need to give great deference to the right of people to anonymously speak out. There is no even playing field in most cases, companies tend to have more money than the average consumer and if criticism is met with a lawsuit it serves to chill speech to a substantial degree.
  • by retchdog ( 1319261 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @04:00PM (#45910093) Journal

    Sure, but the legal system usually requires the plaintiff to show harm in order to have standing. Is there harm in a false positive review? Maybe to a competitor, or to the class of Yelp users, but it's much harder to argue for a case.

    This is by design. It's a justice system, not a legislative system.

    Yes, there are exceptions where standing is automatic, but they don't apply here yet and would need be legislated.

  • by Obfuscant ( 592200 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @04:26PM (#45910409)

    So again, if they can lie about how good they are, lie about how bad everyone else is, then why can't other people lie about how bad they are?

    They can. They just can't do it anonymously for the reason I'll elucidate in a second.

    I think Libelous speech should be protected, despite the supreme courts previous rulings.

    You've got to be kidding. So if I make up scandalous lies about you that cost you your job and your wife and maybe gets you some prison time for good measure, there's nothing you should be able to do about it?

    Of course I expect now you'll say that by "protected" you'll mean there can't be limitations on saying something but there can be "consequences" that would be a deterrent to people speaking in the first place. Well, that's what this case also says. The anonymous posters weren't prevented from speaking, but there may be consequences -- which requires knowing who said it so the consequences can be applied.

    Oh, by the way, you'll note that this case revolves around commercial speech, upon which different standards apply that are fully constitutional.

  • by webheaded ( 997188 ) on Thursday January 09, 2014 @07:40PM (#45912283) Homepage
    If you do this, NO ONE will want to post there. Just saying. I wouldn't want to post reviews if it required me to reveal my actual identity to the public. Fuck that. There's a reason I don't use my real name as my screen name.

God made machine language; all the rest is the work of man.